Jaga Jazzist's 'Pyramid' Is an Earthy, Complex, Jazz-Fusion Throwback
On their first album in five years, Norway's Jaga Jazzist create a smooth but intricate pastiche of styles with Pyramid.
7 August 2020
Pyramid is certainly a fitting title for the new Jaga Jazzist album. It's beautifully structured and obviously crafted with meticulous care. The long-awaited follow-up to 2015's Starfire sees the eight-piece band continuing to play with long-form song structure (four tracks at just under 40 minutes total). The combination of synths and more organic instrumentation allows the band to stretch out with a variety of concepts.
The first thing anyone familiar with Starfire will notice upon listening to Pyramid (released under the Flying Lotus-curated Brainfeeder label) is a slight smoothing out of edges. While Starfire took a more direct line of attack with experimental synth stabs and hints of everything from dub to post-rock, Pyramid sees the Norwegian outfit embracing a gauzy, almost comforting form of jazz fusion. This isn't meant as a criticism – the fusion genre is rife with wonderful ideas and gleaming, multifaceted musical avenues – but this gentle shifting of styles is something to keep in mind when approaching this beautiful, oddly dreamy album.
Jaga Jazzist take advantage of the songs' lengthy run times by methodically exploring different musical concepts. The intro section of "Tomita", for example, is a leisurely, ambient vibe as bandleader and composer Lars Horntveth's saxophone swirls around a bed of keyboards. Eventually, a Latin-tinged beat emerges and eventually morphs into a more insistent rock meter. Even Ormestad's bass playing has a thick, chunky consistency that recalls Chris Squire of Yes, bringing a progressive rock feel to the composition. With all eight members in place, the band clicks beautifully.
On "Spiral Era", drummer Martin Horntveth provides a funky foundation while dreamy, wordless vocals augment a heavy keyboard mix. As the beat chugs along, many of the ethereal facets of fusion can be heard, mixed with the somewhat faceless sheen of film scores. It should be noted that alternate versions of "Spiral Era" were released last month in anticipation of Pyramid, including a remix that pulls out and explores the song's funkier possibilities. It's worth seeking out.
Meanwhile, "The Shrine" begins with a percussion-free section that somehow recalls the quieter, more reflective moments of Miles Davis' Sketches of Spain album before layer upon layer of instrumentation creates a playful, slightly chaotic atmosphere. Synth figures create intricate melodies and a wonderful counterpoint to the more sedate, sustained lines of the song. Closing out Pyramid is "Apex", which is perhaps the liveliest track on the album. The relentless beat seems tailor-made for a neon-blasted jazz-fusion-tinged dancefloor, while the keyboards lay down a synthetic vibe that's more Giorgio Moroder than Joe Zawinul.
Pyramid is an exciting new entry in Jaga Jazzist's discography – relentless in its exploration of a variety of styles that seem rooted in jazz but are not limited to the genre. It evokes a certain vibe that can certainly come off as retro-leaning, but at the same time, this is a band unafraid of innovation and forward-thinking.
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